How do you protect the quality of weirdness? Eccentricity, like innovation, gets absorbed and normalized, or else devolves into self-caricature. Rarely does anyone or anything remain endearingly odd. And yet four decades after the wrapping came off Philip Johnson and John Burgee’s 550 Madison Avenue to reveal a pink stone menhir with a fancy hat, the tower still radiates a wry, ornery, unmistakably New York personality. Fresh from an attempt to give it some generic respectability, 550 Madison (a.k.a. the AT&T Building, the Sony Building, and the “Chippendale tower”) manages to retain its monumental goofiness.
That outcome wasn’t guaranteed. When the Olayan Group bought the building in 2016, the company contemplated a more violent renovation. The architecture firm Snøhetta proposed stripping the stone off the lower stories and exposing the steel cross-braces in order to maximize daylight. It would have effectively given the building a Halloween skeleton costume, disguising its identity at street level by flaunting its internal structure. The design was met with scorn and alarm and quickly retracted. Instead, the Landmarks Preservation Commission, with Olayan’s support, designated the tower in 2018, ensuring a more judicious approach.
The LPC is just starting to reckon with the legacy of postmodernism, but it’s not always easy to take a tongue-in-cheek movement seriously. The commission declined to protect the AT&T Building’s lobby, interiors, annex, or public space, all of which have been revamped (or eliminated) to transform a corporate headquarters into a rental building. The result is a mixture of respect and betrayal, with the original concept forcibly divided into component parts. It’s a tough tradeoff, but one I can accept. The building is more livable (and leasable) now, and if comfort has come at the expense of artistic consistency, it’s also ensured an oddball building several more decades of life.
Convention, law, and economics often conspire to cleave architecture into exterior and interior domains. One firm designs the façade, a specialist maps the layouts, and a third ornaments the lobby. Those divisions can be as arbitrary as giving one baker responsibility for the crust and another oversight of the crumb. Johnson saw his building as a whole loaf. The porthole window in the archway matched the circular opening in the crown. The rosy granite, at once whimsical and weighty, continued from the façade into the lobby, where it took the form of a Romanesque arcade. The play of black-and-white circles and squares on the lobby’s marble floor evoked the patterned floors of Italian Renaissance churches. (The developer ripped those out and, for the new iteration, Gensler reproduced traces of them in cheaper terrazzo.)
Were all the sacramental touches — the porch, arch, nave, and aisles, with a cloister of sorts out back — a tongue-in-cheek reference to AT&T’s omnipresence in American life? Or did they more broadly represent a return to architecture’s fundamentals? The question is moot, since the link between structure and detail has been snapped. The original lobby and sky lobby are both gone and, with them, Johnson’s sense of lugubrious grandeur. He’d made the lobby an anteroom fit for a small empire: a modern hypostyle outfitted with structurally superfluous columns. The high-ceilinged space, dominated by AT&T’s lofty “Golden Boy” statue, managed to be majestic and claustrophobic at the same time. Gensler has moderated the oppressiveness while retaining traces of menace. The walls are lined with a bronzed mesh that could be mistaken for chain mail. The circle in the crown has also yielded a new artwork by Alicja Kwade: a 24-ton blueish stone sphere suspended from the vaulted ceiling like a planet of Damocles. Kwade may not have intended the piece to represent a world dangling at the verge of oblivion, but it sure feels that way.
On the seventh floor, in what used to be called the sky lobby and is now the club level—but still serves as an elevator junction—the Rockwell Group has made a virtue of the darkness that Snøhetta hoped to dilute. There are a few more windows now, but even so, bronzed steel, wood paneling, mood lighting, and a fireplace in a freestanding pod all give the common areas a cocoon-like warmth. Johnson and Burgee’s version of this floor extended the geometric games from the lobby; the phone company’s employees switched elevators amid a profusion of freestanding stone portals, lintels, and arches. That’s all been boiled down to the circle, which pops up everywhere, as pervasive as a logo. A mobile with translucent globes hangs from the ceiling. The flame-colored sun murals by Dorothea Rockburne look more at home than ever, flanking the cyclopean eye that opens onto Madison Avenue. Sliding doors close to form a bisected circle in a square. The vibe is semi-Masonic.
It’s hard to imagine now, but four decades ago, the design arrived as a thunderclap. Johnson had been one of modernism’s high priests, but with this building he signaled that decades of austerity were finally being lifted. All those thin, plain, planar, and see-through structures belonged to the modernist moment but not the inevitable future. Make way (Johnson seemed to be saying) for arches, columns, historical references, and big blocks of slightly pitted, strokable, iridescent stone. The crown, a temple pediment with a cannonball hole in its center, was instantly recognizable on the skyline as an oversized frill — proudly unnecessary, retro, enigmatic. For some architects, this great giving of permission was as liberating as the end of corsets. A lot of others hated it.
The critic Reyner Banham wrote that the building’s wit and style, like the architect’s, cloaked a work of profound seriousness. “AT&T is so intensely regional as to be almost parochial, an insider’s Manhattan one-line jest — or would be if Manhattan were not a world city and Johnson a world figure.” Michael Sorkin was more biting, calling the tower “a graceless attempt to disguise what is really just the same old building by cloaking it in this week’s drag.”
Gags don’t age well, and postmodernism’s playfulness proved powerful but temporary. The skyscraper as icon influenced the generation of Gehry, Foster, Libeskind, Hadid, Nouvel, and de Portzamparc. At the same time, though, developers packed the New York skyline with ever tauter, shinier, chillier crystal wands. Corporate modernism kept coming back, like malaria. The AT&T Building heralded a new path that almost immediately fell out of fashion.
Maybe that short-lived timeliness helps explain the building’s enduring appeal: It’s too distinctive to carry the weight of an ism. Architecture has to outlive its moment, and Johnson’s building, intended as a gleeful tombstone for modernism, wound up presiding over other passings, too. As Craig Unger documented in New York in 1982, the temple to the ultimate American corporation went up just as the company was coming down, soon to be dismantled after an anti-trust lawsuit. Sony bought the building a decade later, during the period of CD-induced prosperity before digital file sharing ravaged the record business. For a while after that, the tower stood vacant. The latest rehab as a speculative office building took place just the future of the office and the business district started to look shaky.
That kind of history can make a skyscraper seem disposable, so Snøhetta had to stage a rescue operation, which it did partly by returning space to the public. The firm’s most aggressive, and most successful, move was to demolish the pointless annex behind the street front, between Fifth and Madison, and expand the back-of-house atrium into an open-sided garden. It’s high-quality public space, where a canopy shields users from the rain and spouts collect it to irrigate the copious plantings. More arcs and circles proliferate: round tables, curving bars and benches, and a concave wall where water flows over faceted stones. Snøhetta has transformed what was a broad and mostly empty pedestrian avenue into a collection of havens, inviting nothing more vigorous than a stroll. A sinuous canopy shelters a café and a set of public restrooms, helping to resupply midtown’s scarcest commodity. The garden clinches the project’s success.
Preservationists are attuned to fragility. Take away a statue, eliminate a doorway, or update the lighting, they sometimes argue, and you’ve undermined the whole aesthetic edifice of a design. But good architecture is robust; its ability to withstand a certain amount of punishment is testament to its longevity. Johnson and Burgee’s big stone statement outlasted one clumsy renovation (by Gwathmey Siegel in the 1990s) and it will survive this defter one, too.